Book Review

Mercenaries make sympathetic subjects

By Jim Chiavelli
August 28, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid email address
Invalid email address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

There are tens of thousands of military contractors - mercenaries - in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the US companies Xe (formerly Blackwater) and Triple Canopy. They’re guarding diplomats and fuel convoys, and attacking opium crops. They are also ungoverned, and some might say ungovernable. In one 2007 instance, Blackwater guards killed 17 civilians and injured 20 in Baghdad.

Last year, then-Senator Hillary Clinton tried to ban their use in Iraq. Now secretary of state, she employs them. In 2007, then-senator Barack Obama wrote to President George W. Bush saying he was “disturbed’’ by the use of military contractors in war zones. Recently, President Obama announced he is taking away Xe’s diplomatic-security contract in Iraq - and replacing it with Triple Canopy, from his hometown, Chicago.

Now comes British journalist Tony Geraghty with “Soldiers of Fortune: A History of the Mercenary in Modern Warfare.’’ A collection of post-World War II vignettes grouped into three sections, this loosely connected narrative focuses almost solely on British companies and their relationship with their government. But unlike other writers in this burgeoning field (Jeremy Scahill in “Blackwater,’’ Robert Young Pelton in “Licensed to Kill,’’ Steve Fainaru in “Big Boy Rules’’), Geraghty makes no bones about his sympathies for the mercenaries, who may today be ex-soldiers looking to pay off the mortgage but decades ago were often idealists fighting communism.

In Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, mercenaries fought on behalf of legitimate governments or against those, like Patrice Lumumba’s in the Republic of the Congo, deemed too close to the Soviet Union. British veteran “Mad’’ Mike Hoare, who created a unit of European ex-soldiers to fight the Simba rebellion (a few years after Lumumba’s assassination), was “an idealist who sought a higher purpose in his work.’’ His men became “popular heroes’’ by rescuing European hostages and supporting the Congolese premier. In other places, like Angola and El Salvador, the CIA recruited British veterans to undercut communist regimes.

Beginning in the ’60s, the British government, especially, sent “deniable warriors,’’ often on leave from their regiments, to prop up friendly governments. When Egypt backed a coup in Yemen, the ousted Yemeni imam made heavy use of French and British “deniables.’’ One of those, former British Special Air Services Colonel David Smiley, argued that the work is honorable as long as the mercenary fights “in the interests of his own country, or in defence of his own ideals.’’ Similar off-the-books British soldiers fought against Russians in Afghanistan, Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and rebels in Sierra Leone, occasionally with a face-saving public disavowal by her majesty’s government.

Then came Iraq and Afghanistan and an explosion of demand for contractors. Those firms now prefer to be called “security consultants.’’ By any name, their employees have fought and often died like soldiers, and in fact “were becoming indistinguishable from the regulars,’’ especially to Iraqis, Geraghty says. And the companies foresee more work in the future in post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization.

If Geraghty finds villains, they are national governments or the United Nations, which cannot agree on ways to regulate mercenaries. Most European countries have “abandoned any pretensions to serious defence policy,’’ thus necessitating private militaries; the United States and others “render prisoners to be tortured by proxy, and civilians are bombed as a preemptive act of self-defence.’’ In this world, Geraghty argues, the mercenary “is not, by a long way, the most immoral actor.’’

Jim Chiavelli was with the NATO-led force in Afghanistan in 2005-06. He works at Northeastern University.

SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE: A History of the Mercenary in Modern Warfare By Tony Geraghty

Pegasus Books, 392 pp., $27.95

Latest Entertainment Twitters

Get breaking entertainment news, gossip, and the latest from Boston Globe critics and A&E staff.